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Cell phones don’t cause problems — people do

SHARE Cell phones don’t cause problems — people do

Having just returned from a family vacation in Scandinavia, I can testify that cellular phone madness is a global issue. Even in the remote north, the whiny beeps and classical tunes that alert people to incoming calls can be heard everywhere from pastoral countrysides to the bustling centers of major cities.

In the tiny town of Marbacka, Sweden, a local guide had to remind everyone to please turn off their phones before she would take us through the home of a famous author. Several people reached into their pockets to obey. In the royal palace in Stockholm, a native Swedish friend we were with was quickly chastised by a security guard after his phone split the air with Mozart. On a park bench in the town of Eskilstuna (population 90,000), a young woman with various metal pieces piercing her head suddenly had the urge to reach into a pocket and frantically dial out a set of numbers for what must have been an incredibly urgent conversation.

It would have been easy to assume the pose of an ugly American and look down on all this, but I was too annoyed by the fact that my own phone could only stare at me and flash "No service available," as if it couldn't imagine being so far from home. I felt disconnected and vulnerable.

And that is my struggle with the issue of whether cellular phones are evil or good. I like my phone and the convenience it offers. I like being able to call home while riding TRAX to ask if I need to stop off and get something. I like being able to take care of important matters during moments that otherwise would be wasted, and I would have liked to have called the people we were planning to visit in Norway to ask for directions. But I also understand how annoying this can be to others and how dangerous it can be to motorists.

A lot of people these days are labeling cell phones as public enemy No. 1, or at least No. 2 or 3, presumably somewhere behind methamphetamine labs and high gas prices. Some cities even have started banning their use in cars. The township of Marlboro, N.J., just became the fifth city in the United States to impose such a ban, fining drivers $250 if they are caught behind the wheel with a hand-held phone.

As if to bolster this move, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a report this month that called cellular phones a safety threat. Officials said 44 percent of American drivers have phones in their cars, and one-fourth of the approximately 6.3 million accidents each year are blamed on distracted or inattentive motorists. Before long, state legislatures are bound to step in. Many already have tried.

Of course, on the good side, cellular phones have brought classical music back into public life. All around the world, the strains of great works long neglected are filling the air, even if they are cut off quickly by a harried, "Hello?" You can even tailor certain classics to certain callers. Your phone can play, for example, something by Wagner only when the boss calls — a choice that could have all kinds of subliminal implications.

On one hand, it's nice to see a little more culture in everyday life. On the other, music rarely inspires or moves the soul when performed on a whiny, high-pitched electronic device that sounds more like an ice cream truck than a symphony. Like the phones themselves, the ringing is a mixed blessing.

As with so many things in life, cellular phones would be less of a problem if people used common sense and courtesy. To borrow a phrase from the gun-rights crowd, cellular phones don't cause problems, people do. But can common sense and courtesy be legislated?

When the government says 25 percent of all accidents are caused by inattentiveness, I'm guessing much of that also refers to the people who apply makeup, read books or magazines and discipline children while they drive — all of which I have seen frequently along the Wasatch Front. Are legislatures ready to ban these things, as well?

As for the problem of telephone courtesy, the Swedes may have an answer. Trains there have certain cars designated as cellular phone free. Anyone looking for a quiet, peaceful ride could find one of these cars and be assured a modicum of privacy, unless they also find themselves next to an American family with small children, such as ours.

Perhaps this is our future. Like smokers, cell phone users will be ushered to their own sections in restaurants, at airports and in other public places. I suppose it beats having the courtesy police wandering around, slapping fines on anyone who speaks in public to someone who is not physically there. But somehow, I don't think they will be able to find places big enough to keep all of us.


Deseret News editorial page editor Jay Evensen may be reached by e-mail at even@desnews.com